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What is the Bible?

John 5:36-47

Imagine that you receive an invitation to have tea with the Queen.
It is a beautiful invitation, on the most expensive paper, embossed in gold, with the royal coat of arms embedded in wax. It is handwritten, each of the letters is like a work of art and it is personally signed.
Nobody has ever seen anything like it.

You study it. You pore over every letter, every word: It is beautiful.
You show it to your friends: look what I have received. Isn’t it amazing? I have received this invitation to have tea with the Queen
You show it to your enemies. Don’t mess with me. I have received this invitation to have tea with the Queen
And you frame the invitation, and you hang it in your house. You often gaze at it. You know the wording by heart. And everyone who comes to visit sees that you were the person who received this invitation to have tea with the Queen.

There is only one thing that you don’t do.
You don’t take her up on the invitation. You never actually go and have tea with the Queen

You see spending time with the Queen is not really important to you.
What is much more important is what people think of you.
What is important is that people look up to you. They listen to you. They come to see you because they know that you have received that invitation. They don’t mess you about.
What is important is that you are praised and honoured, that you matter - because you are the person who has had an invitation to have tea with the Queen.

Well, says Jesus, that is how some people are with the Scriptures, the Bible

When Jesus talks about the Scriptures he is talking about what is the first 2/3 of our Bible, the Old Testament. But what he says about the Old Testament can be applied just as much to the New Testament.

He says to them: ‘You diligently study the Scriptures’.
They read the Old Testament. And they knew it.
They looked at the words in detail. They retold the stories, learnt the psalms, pondered the wisdom, discussed how they were meant to interpret the laws or put them into practice.

But they missed the point of what it was all about.

Because the Bible is an invitation: it is the invitation to meet with God.

It is not only the story of how men and women met with God in the past, put their faith in him, but it is an invitation to meet with God.

It is not only a description of how God is like a shepherd who guides his sheep. It is an invitation to meet the shepherd. So that THE shepherd becomes MY shepherd.

It is not only the account of how God chose a slave people (the Jewish people) to be his special people, to be his children; of how he teaches them and disciplines them and guides them - but it is an invitation to become a child of God, that God should become our God, our Father in heaven.

So many people miss out on that.

Jesus says to them, ‘You diligently study the scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life’ (John 5.39f)

And the reason that Jesus says that they missed the point was because they were not really interested in living for that world, but in living for this world.
They were not - despite their words - interested in the things of God but in merely human things.
They were not interested in getting praise and credit from God, but in getting praise and credit from other people.
Jesus asks them in v44: “How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God”.

And Jesus says that if they had been really interested in God, in meeting with God, in encountering God, then they would have welcomed John the Baptist, they would have seen through Jesus’ miracles (the signs) and realised that Jesus was the Son of God; and they would have heard the voice of God the Father speaking to them through the Bible.

The Bible is not a book about how you can get on here on earth, of how you can become successful, important, wise and wealthy

It is a book of wisdom but simply reading it, studying it cannot give you wisdom
It is a book about morality but simply reading it cannot make you moral
It is a book about what delights God, but simply reading it will not enable you to delight God
It is a book about the experience of people who knew God, but simply reading about that experience will never help you to get to know God.
It is a book that speaks of heaven, but studying it will not in itself get you to heaven.

Fundamentally, the Bible is a signpost

John the Baptist was a signpost. He said, ‘I am the voice of one calling in the desert, make straight the way for the Lord’. (1.23). He says, ‘A man who comes after me surpasses me because he was before me’ (1.30)

The signs that Jesus did were a signpost: those who looked at them with the eyes of faith saw that they were not just amazing miracles, but that they revealed his glory. Here he says, ‘The very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that it is the Father who sent me’ (5.36)

And the Bible points us to Jesus

Moses, says Jesus (Moses here stands for the first five books in the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), wrote about me. If you really believed Moses, you would come to me.

My father is a historian and a professor of adult education, and he has a theory (he has lots of theories!) about guide books. When we were in the UK in the summer, we went to visit a castle. An amazing place. A real castle, with water in the moat and walls and tower and spiral staircases and battlements. And my father was saying, ‘Don’t sell the guidebook when people go into the castle. Sell the guidebook as people leave the castle’. Because you very rarely see people walking around the castle with the guidebook. Instead they walk around the castle, look at what interests them, read the signs and then think, “I must find out more”. And so they then buy the guidebook, take it home and read it. And they think: I saw that, or I missed that. Or so that is how it works. I must find out more, go back there and see the castle again.

And I think that that is one way of thinking about the Bible.

It will not help people who are not interested in knowing God or knowing Jesus.
It is for people who have already been given a hunger for God, who want to know God or who want to know God better.

For all such people, as Paul writes in Timothy,
“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work”. 2 Timothy 3:16-17

We see that happening in a story in Acts 8. We read about an Ethiopian official who visited Jerusalem after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He had a hunger for God. He wanted to know how he could live to please God. And so he picked up the guide book, he started to read the Bible.
The passage he read was Isaiah 53. He did not understand it, but it spoke to something deep within him. And so he asks a Christian, he asks Philip, ‘Tell me, please, ‘Who is Isaiah speaking about?’”. And Philip tells him: it is about Jesus. And he goes on to tell him about Jesus.
And then the Ethiopian official can begin to see for himself how Isaiah 53 speaks of Jesus.

So often I find that the people who have the greatest desire and hunger to read the Bible are people who have recently come to put their faith in Jesus.
They read the Bible and what they read matches their experience and touches their soul. They want to know more about the Jesus who they have already got to know, so that they can get to know him better.

The bible is a signpost pointing us to Jesus, revealing Jesus.

John tells us that he has written his gospel so that we may believe (or more accurately ‘go on believing’) that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God’ (John 20.31)

The bible is a guidebook to accompany those who have started to hunger for God on their way to God

People have decorated their bibles: you can visit the Kremlin Museum and you will see the most exquisite bibles with silver or golden covers and encrusted with precious jewels.
Over the holidays I was looking at a book about illustrated bibles from the Middle Ages and the scripting and the illustrations are astonishingly beautiful.
And people have laboured to translate the Bible into the very best that their national language can offer. Even today, for rhythm and cadence, it is hard to find a work of English literature that surpasses the King James Version.

And of course, it is right to bring the very best of culture to the Bible, to make our Bibles beautiful and to reverence the Bible.

Pre-Covid, we used to have the gospel procession

But it is such a tragedy when people gaze at the golden cover, and maybe bow before the bible, but never open it;
when they admire the illustrations and the language, but do not listen to what it is saying;
when they study it, and write learned commentaries about it, but do not allow it to speak to their souls.

Because the bible is primarily an invitation. An invitation to meet with God and his Son Jesus Christ

Please do not be like the fool who received that invitation to have tea with the Queen, and spent more time captivated by the invitation because it was beautiful and made her look good, and who never accepted the invitation to meet with the Queen.

We have here an invitation to come into the presence of the King of kings and queens, the President of presidents, the Ruler of rulers. We have here an invitation to know God as our heavenly Father and to know the Son of God, 
Jesus Christ, as our Lord and Saviour and Brother and Friend.

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